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Corps of Engineers Help City Move Trash

By Elaine Eliah
Special to American Forces Press Service

NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 23, 2006 – New Orleans faced an uphill battle against mountains of debris after storm surge and levee flooding from hurricanes Katrina and Rita brought city services to a halt in 2005.

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TSG Solutions trash trucks help restore normalcy to residents of New Orleans. The Army Corps of Engineers was instrumental in providing contractors in municipal solid waste reduction efforts. Courtesy photo

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With the city and its municipal solid waste collection contractor unable to resume operations, the garbage, stench and health risk increased with each sultry day.

"Our contractors were having problems regrouping their people and equipment," said New Orleans Director of Sanitation Veronica T. White, a specialist in public and environmental health. "The No. 1 urgency here was health."

On Sept. 21, New Orleans asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for help. "The Corps had never before undertaken MSW in an emergency mission," said Jonathan Foster, USACE debris project team leader. "Everything we did in that first month was a lesson learned."

"It was a learning process for all of us," added White. With the French Quarter and Central Business District essential for revitalizing the city's economy, these zones, along with areas in which residents had returned, were given priority. USACE and prime contractor ECC Operating Services assembled an assortment of local subcontractors and equipment.

The immediate goal was to move as much trash, most of it loose or scattered, as quickly as possible off city streets.

Every available dump or pick-up truck, flatbed or goose-neck trailer, skid steer, rake, shovel, and broom was recruited for the effort. Crews hit the streets one section at a time, collecting windblown debris and shoveling loose garbage into waiting haulers. A transfer station was used to speed up turn around time and round trip mileage for collection trucks.

Within the first 30 days, using up to 600 trucks and over 2,000 workers, the city's backlog of garbage was reduced to the point where they could begin resumption of once-a-week service on New Orlean's West Bank. Eighteen days later, the USACE team returned the city to weekly service citywide, bringing normalcy to at least one aspect of recovery.

USACE and city officials recognized that community need for restored normalcy went deeper than residential MSW collection. Reviving municipal service went hand in hand with resurrecting local businesses capable of maintaining service after the FEMA, USACE, and ECC pull-out. While the bulk collection was taking place, longer term MSW companies were under consideration.

"The biggest hurdle was just getting equipment," remembers Foster. "For a few weeks, five trucks worked the whole city."

For, example pre-Katrina Richard's Disposal boasted a team of 76 dedicated employees, 28 trucks, some 300 roll-on collection cans, and a full-service mechanic shop. When ECC called minority entrepreneur Alvin Richard Jr., his 27-year-old small business had only recently resurfaced from three feet of flooding, none of his vehicles functioned, and few of his scattered crew could even be located.

While his son coaxed one truck to life and began service rounds for RDI's active commercial clients, Richard oversaw salvage operations of workshops, vehicles and offices. "We're working in adverse conditions, but when there's something to deal with you have to get it done," he said. ECC and USACE provided funding and helped RDI lease motor homes as temporary crew housing.

Simultaneously, ECC contacted TSG Solutions, to see if a company that previously worked only in waste-water treatment would take on solid waste. The opportunity surprised award-winning minority businessman Michael Sullivan. "I had thought that ECC was going to bring in a lot of people from the outside to do this work," Sullivan said.

RDI and TSG are small disadvantaged businesses, whose owners come from generations of New Orleaneans. Under the Stafford Act, Congress established that whenever possible, federally funded emergency assistance would give preference "to those organizations, firms and individuals residing or doing business primarily in the area affected."

"ECC said they'd provide support, technical assistance, and see that I was paid in a timely manner," Sullivan said. TSG was given a small area at first and began collection with a couple of 30-yard dump trucks.

"We were lucky to have three tons per truck," Sullivan said. Aware that rear-loading trucks with garbage compacters average 10-12 tons, he invested in four. TSG's fleet has since grown to 12 trucks and 36 workers. Three are new vehicles, with leased crews from another company, an alliance that also brought along a recovery vehicle and experienced mechanics.

ECC's teams have already collected over 33,000 tons of solid waste. The daily haul of 250-300 tons is enough to occupy RDI and TSG's total of 24 rear-loader trucks, most of which hold 25 cubic yards of compacted garbage. Two more crews are dispatched to collect random large MSW piles that appear from time to time. Each crew has two trucks, two 35-yard trailers, a Bobcat, and four workers. As residents return, average daily tonnage is expected to continue increasing.

"It took a couple of weeks for us all to get on one page," said White. "Now we're all working together to get our city restored."

"This lady stopped me in the street to give me the placard number of one of the garbage trucks," reported Corps of Engineers resident engineer Brian Oberlies, on temporary duty with MSW efforts. Rather than complaining, "she said she hadn't had garbage service this good in 50 years."

USACE and ECC's mandate to collect and haul MSW continues through February, at which time the city government has said it will resume municipal responsibility for subsequent MSW operations.

(Elaine Eliah is a communications specialist with ECC International Baghdad.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe shops of Richard's Disposal, Inc, like other New Orleans businesses, were ravaged by hurricane damage in 2005. Contract help through the Army Corps of Engineers has helped many to recover their livelihood and to help restore basic services to the city. Courtesy photo  
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